5 This is the message we have heard from Him and announce to you, that God is Light, and in Him there is no darkness at all. 6 If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth; 7 but if we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin. 8 If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us. 1 John 1:5-10 (NASB)
The impotence of repentance
In normal english parlance, “repentance” means that you make a significant and lasting change in your life, as it concerns some habitual or besetting sin. This definition is not without biblical support:
7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Therefore bear fruit in keeping with repentance; 9 and do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father’; for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham. 10 The axe is already laid at the root of the trees; therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Matthew 3:7-10 (NASB)
Although it could be disputed, there is a very good case that John the Baptist is not talking about a repentance of belief, but a repentance of behavior. They are to “bear fruit” in keeping with repentance. Of course, the fruit is different than the repentance, so there is some other change called “repentance” which is not the “fruit” but which inevitably leads to fruit. However, if there is a lack of fruit, it it seen to invalidate the authenticity of the repentance, and so John’s baptism is a baptism of behavioral change. It is a fruit-checking repentance.
This style of repentance implies that there is a two-way agreement in place, which one party has broken, and that there is “wrath” coming as a result. The presumption is that if one changes one’s evil ways before the wrath comes, it will appease the wronged party. The problem is, in the case of the pharisees, even with such a stern warning, they did not repent. So if you think about it, John’s preaching was remarkably ineffectual. The righteous people, who were the brood of vipers, remained a brood of vipers and did not bring forth fruit. On the other hand, the sinners seemed to have remained unrepentant sinners, and Jesus needed to come to them as a physician offering forgiveness and healing as a physician to the sick. So none of this two-way covenant style of repentance worked, not even at a societal level, for anyone. Not to mention that just because you manage to reform yourself 5 minutes before the wrath to come comes, it doesn’t account for all of your sin prior to that. John’s baptism is incapable of saving anyone from wrath:
19 It happened that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the upper country and came to Ephesus, and found some disciples. 2 He said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said to him, “No, we have not even heard whether there is a Holy Spirit.” 3 And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” And they said, “Into John’s baptism.” 4 Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in Him who was coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” 5 When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 6 And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking with tongues and prophesying. 7 There were in all about twelve men.
So, according to Acts, even John acknowledged that his baptism of repentance was useless, and that people should instead believe in Him was coming after him, Jesus. Amazing! Notice that the Holy Spirit will not touch a merely repentant person with a single molecule of help or presence, but as soon as they are baptized in the mere name of Jesus the Holy Spirit comes immediately with a flood. This is the witness of scripture.
So what do we do instead? Is there no path to moral change? Here is the question I pose instead. Are we to measure the authenticity of our faith by the degree of moral repentance we show? This mindset constantly undermines faith and drags us back into the world of fruit-checking and measuring degrees of behavioral change. It is always naked and unadorned belief, simple faith in Christ, which opens the door to a new identity and a new way of thinking. Simple faith in Christ opens the door to the flood of the manifest presence of the Holy Spirit.
The superior power of confession
I have puzzled over the idea that we “confess” Jesus as Lord. It is not a profession, not a repentance. It is a confession. We confess our deep inner secrets under duress. Confession of Christ and confession of sin are not two separate items; they are a unity. Confession is more powerful because it makes no promise of reform. It promises no fruit. It has no plan. It acknowledges our slavery, our helplessness. It comes as a patient to the doctor, saying, I can no longer pretend to heal myself.
It is only under the auspices of faith in the sufficiency of Christ’s blood that we can confess. If we have no assurance of acceptance, of wrath that is completely appeased, we cannot hope to come and truly confess. When we confess Jesus as Lord, as savior, as redeemer, we also confess that God has spoken the truth about our sin. We say, yes, my sins are like scarlet. They are worthy of death. They are truly and deeply evil. Confession says, I cannot fix myself. I come to Another. And because I am divested of the idea that I can justify myself, or that I can promise to bring forth fruit, I can go deep and confess things that I have no hope at all of changing. I can confess deep heart-level horrors and terrors, I can ferret out real evil and lay it at the foot of the throne of grace. I can say, “now is my hour of need. I need grace and mercy to help. I cannot promise to change myself, and so I come, because I confess Jesus as Lord and not myself. I am a bad god, even over myself.”
Furthermore, I think there are people out there that in their secret heart, just as they know their own sin and their own lack of fruit, also in public do not profess Jesus, but in secret when they come under duress, they believe in the power of His forgiveness and His blood. They do not believe the fake church’s fruit-checking bluster. So they have left the church, and think that they are no longer a Christian. If that is you, you are right. Fruit-checking “Baptism of John” style repentance is not Christianity, and whatever they are pretending is the Holy Spirit is some weird emotionalism or worse. There is only one gospel, Christ and Him crucified. There is no other way. You can’t even confess your sin without confessing Christ. He is the doorway to freedom and the relief and rest of true confession.